Student Affairs Practices in the Arabian Gulf: the Good, the Bad and the Foreign

Kruze, et al.

Student Affairs Practices in the Arabian Gulf: the Good, the Bad and the Foreign

Tadd Kruse
Abdulwahab Al-Khaldi
American University of Kuwait

Evan Witt
University of Auckland – City Campus


American higher education has quickly become one of our country’s greatest imports/exports with the Institute for International Education (IIE) estimating that international students in the United States generate over $20 billion annually (Chow & Bhandari, 2011). While this is a staggering number, this does not take into consideration colleges and universities around the world that use the American model of education or United States institutions that operate international branch campuses. We represent these types of institutions.

So why should we as administrators and practitioners be concerned with this? Our students, whether they are international students studying in the United States or students studying at a university internationally, represent a diversity of nations, cultures, values, and beliefs that do not necessarily align with the values and ideals of United States higher education. United States higher education is founded on democracy, individuality, and academic freedom. Yet, across the world, students study at institutions in countries that are autocratic, value collectivism, and limit freedom of speech.

As the model of American education is distributed around the world, student affairs has seen unparalleled growth in supporting the missions of these academic institutions. As we see the continued expansion of United States education into the global market we ask the question, “how can we adapt the student affairs model to fit a global context?”

To answer that question we will provide accounts from our work as practitioners and administrators in the Arabian Gulf region. These accounts cover new ideas being introduced, the challenges in implementation, the great work being done to support students, as well as new perspectives for working in the international context.  This contributes to the conversation of how to improve the work others and we are doing outside of the United States.  In the end we will make suggestions to encourage our fellow professionals as we all strive to support the success and development of our students regardless of the borders that define our realities.

Our Context

In the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, well over one hundred postsecondary institutions exist and vary greatly in models, size, purpose, and governance. This article’s context is related to institutions in the GCC and we use examples from our institutions to highlight issues.  

Education City in Doha, Qatar is an initiative of the Qatar Foundation dating back to the 1990s.  It is an effort to bring a collection of international branch campus institutions to Qatar and has recently added the newly emerging research institution, Hamad bin Khalifa University (HBKU).  Education City serves approximately 2,500 total enrolled students from 9 different institutions each offering a targeted degree program. For example, Texas A&M University in Qatar focuses on engineering degrees. Education City serves a mix of graduate and undergraduate students in addition to having a predominantly commuter student population.   

The American University of Kuwait (AUK), established in 2003, is a private liberal arts institution of higher education based on an American model.  Located in Salmiya, Kuwait, AUK has a population of approximately 2,500 students and is an urban commuter campus.  The institution provides English language instruction and undergraduate education through the College of Arts & Sciences and the College of Business & Economics.

We must illustrate a greater context under which campuses in this region operate by further sharing with readers how each category is applied.  Even though our title states “the Good, the Bad, and the Foreign,” in order to provide greater perspective we will address these in reverse order, highlighting the Foreign (not right or wrong, but different), the Bad (challenges), and the Good (successes).     

The Foreign

Within the United States, the field of student affairs has been evolving over the years with landmark publications, including the 1937 Student Personnel Point of View (American Council on Education, 1937), the 1996 Learning Imperative (Calhoun, 1996), and the 2004 first version of Learning Reconsidered (Keeling, 2004). In the international context this process of professionalizing the field of student affairs is just starting but has seen significant highlights with documents such as the 2002 UNESCO report on the Role of Student Affairs and Services in Higher Education and organizations such as the International Association of Student Affairs and Services (IASAS). Recognition and value for the field of student affairs is a daily struggle in our context of the GCC (UNESCO, 2002).

Education within the Gulf is viewed more as a transactional process. This is reflected in many public K-12 systems that focus more on rote memorization than critical thinking and the processing of information. When students arrive at a foreign model institution in the Gulf it is not only a new style of learning, but the idea of learning outside the classroom is also a new concept. The overall understanding and value of student affairs for many of these students and their families does not exist, resulting in professionals educating others and advocating for its importance. The lack of awareness of student affairs in the general population is to an extent that people are not aware that positions aside from faculty posts exist in higher education institutions.

There are two levels to how this impacts our work here; the student level and the staff level. For students, they may have little interest in student affairs because, “what’s in it for me?” We spend a lot of time trying to demonstrate the importance of holistic education and skills that can be developed through involvement. Because of the academic focus of the culture and prior public education, most students see the college experience as strictly earning the degree, nothing more.

From the staff side, the values and purpose of student affairs is also a new concept. Many professionals in the GCC do not have a formal background in student affairs or education, for that matter. In order to better serve students, many staff members engage in regular training to develop skills such as advising and counseling as they familiarize themselves with the field of higher education. It takes time for professionals to both learn the job and act as a practitioner but it is a long-term investment in making a sustainable profession.

The role of religion and family are at the very core of society in the GCC.   As a result families of many students often do not see the value in experiential learning.  State laws and governance in Gulf nations is largely influenced by religious doctrine. This in turn encompasses rules and regulations pertaining to the establishment and operation of state and private universities.  Subsequently, student affairs practices must adhere to a strict social etiquette based on religion and cultural norms.  The importance of family and image is paramount.  Most campuses have a high proportion of commuter students. All students at AUK and more than half at HBKU are expected to reside at home and may have limited access to campus after classes.  The collectivist culture also makes it difficult for programs such as personal counseling to make a successful impact on students, as there is still a stigma behind seeking guidance/psychological help in the region. Unfortunately, this leads most help-seekers to prioritize reputation and image over counseling.

The Bad

When we say the bad, what we really mean is challenges. As we stated earlier, we are writing to offer our experiences in implementing a student affairs model in a non-United States context. One of the biggest challenges in the GCC is understanding the experiences of our students. Student development theory is a pillar in the field of student affairs, yet we know that it comes with limitations. With incredibly diverse student bodies it becomes difficult to generalize these theories to our students. There is little to no research about the development of Gulf students. The backgrounds, experiences, and outcomes for these students are fundamentally different than those students from whom most developmental theories were developed and based.

For example, Baxter Magolda’s (1999) theory of self-authorship, based on a North American student population, posits that students will go through four stages in their process of developing the capacity to define their own beliefs and identities. These stages are non-linear and begin with following formulas, crossroads, becoming the author of one’s life, and an internal foundation. During the crossroads phase, students will struggle with questions such as “how do I know” and “who am I?” They will often look for external approval as they move towards becoming the authors of their own lives with a strong internal concept (Baxter Magolda, 1999).

In Education City, advising students attending an international service-learning opportunity often elicits questions that include, “Can my family member travel with me?” or “Will I be able to call my family every day?” While the self-authorship model might suggest supporting students through a crossroads as they seek support and approval, it is less of a developmental challenge and more of a life reality that needs to be addressed. Family is at the center of the lives of many students in the Gulf and without their support they are not able to participate in many campus based programs As a new professional in the Gulf one might attempt to support students along a developmental continuum towards more independence and decision making. It would take some time before realizing that the desired outcome was not independence but an ability to gather family support through demonstrating the benefits of involvement.

Another challenge in the planning, execution, and participation in student affairs programs in the GCC is government intervention. Gender segregation is a key social and legal issue in the GCC and impacts our work in student affairs. Some GCC institutions provide separate campuses for male and female students or have designated single gender sections of campus. Under Kuwaiti laws, universities must operate their buildings to ensure gender segregation in all departments and student activities. Due to space limitations, AUK does not offer separate gender campuses but assigns specific usage to communal spaces by allocation of space or time. The common area called “The Hangout,” which contains lounge areas, game consoles, table tennis, and billiards, is arranged to be available on alternating days for male and female students. The Office of Student Life oversees this area and due to the alternating days it limits the interaction the office is able to have with students. Gender becomes a focal point of many programming efforts as the office looks for creative ways to serve both student bodies equally.

The Good

When it comes to the internationalization of higher education, there is incredible work being done all over the world. There are many aspects where United States higher education serves as an example of good practice, and others where the United States stands to learn a lot from our overseas colleagues. Here in the Gulf institutions provide many of the same services as United States counterparts, however these are provided as influenced by the campus infrastructure, and the local/campus cultures.  For instance, some government requirements are designed to provide balance and protect national interests, yet in others infrastructures and systems are not fully developed within expanding higher education systems.  

Regardless of the challenges, excellent services and programs are being provided by professionals in the region amongst the gaps in theory, infrastructure, and resources.  Kuwait, with approximately ten operational institutions and more under development, sees institutions built on models from the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and Australia. Each institution provides varying but similar services related to advising, counseling, and sports, each within the local context. For instance in Kuwait and in Qatar, advising must take into consideration government requirements placed upon students on government scholarships; counseling is conducted in settings with limited external resources off-campus and lacking more developed laws like FERPA; and sports program competitions and guidelines exist without a national governing body providing oversight

In planning programs we make cultural considerations that capture our local context, the backgrounds of our students, and general diversity. Our goal is to respect all and create spaces in which students feel comfortable to participate and actively engage. We constantly discuss how we can recognize native Arabic speakers in an English medium academic environment. We have conversations about the benefits of single gender programs while in a co-gender education environment. Finally, we plan schedules that work around prayer times, family commitments, and student lifestyles.  There is deep complexity in this kind of environment. At its best, students have an incredibly rich learning experience from the diversity of backgrounds and varied services. At its worst, students feel marginalized and disengage. It is an ongoing challenge for professionals, both in the GCC and further abroad, to create an inclusive campus environment.

In the United States we see diversity growing in our student bodies.  In the international context many campuses already contain incredibly diverse student populations. Education City has over 60 nationalities on campus, and the American University of Kuwait’s student body represent over 45 nationalities, with faculty/staff further expanding these figures.  Within campus communities such as these, diversity goes well beyond race and ethnicity. This diversity provides an incredible learning opportunity as we seek to develop global citizens. During the average day for one of our students they may eat breakfast with friends from Egypt and Syria while speaking in Arabic. They then go to a class, taught in English, with a professor from Britain. Later, when they go to their on-campus job they check in with their Qatari/Kuwaiti supervisor before assisting students from six different countries and multiple university programs.  This serves as a small example of the global exchange that students develop on campuses such as ours in Qatar and Kuwait. Is this the only place in the world like this? Not necessarily, but it is an example of an environment that is rare in the United States, yet commonplace here in the GCC.

New Approaches within the American Model

In our experience we too often see administrators from the United States believing that our model of education is “right” and that international students or professionals need to accept and conform to a United States system. What we believe is that for the American education system to be adapted properly we must be willing to deconstruct it, incorporate local cultures and values, and reconstruct it as a strong more impactful model that resonates with students.

In the examples provided we have shown how theory, governmental interventions, and academic cultures may not align with United States student affairs practice, but that successful services are making a positive impact. For practitioners working internationally, we challenge you to throw away general stereotypes about students, and embrace the surrounding diversity of the global community as you develop operational theories to guide your work. For practitioners in the United States, be patient with your students, international and domestic, as they navigate an often-foreign set of educational and cultural values.  The internationalization of higher education presents an exciting and challenging period that is here to stay.  We encourage you to reflect, review, reach out and engage in the ongoing conversation on student affairs within your own campus climate as many of us do; but also to dialogue within an international context.

Reflection Questions

  1. What are some major governmental guidelines or cultural factors that impact how you provide services to students on campus?   
  2.  What parallels can you draw from your campus environment to the issues faced by administrators on campuses in the Arabian Gulf States (i.e. diversity, impact of family, student engagement, etc.)?
  3.  How do you adapt traditional student affairs theory to practice within the context of your work?
  4. How aware are the students and their families of the services provided to support students on your campus?  
  5. In what ways do you embrace the diversity on your campus to effectively develop operational practices to guide your work?


American Council on Education. (1937). The student personnel point of view. Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education.

Baxter Magolda, M. (1999). Creating contexts for learning and selfauthorship: Constructive development pedagogy. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.

Calhoun, J. C. (1996). The student learning imperative: Implications for student affairs. Journal of College Student Development, 37(2), 188-122.

Chow, P., & Bhandari, L. (2011). Open doors: Report on international educational exchange. New York, NY: Institute of International Education.

Keeling, R. P. (Ed.). (2004). Learning reconsidered. Washington, D.C.: ACPA & NASPA.

UNESCO. (2002). The role of student affairs and services in higher education: A practical manual for developing, implementing and assessing student affairs programmes and services. Paris, France: UNESCO.

About the Authors

Tadd Kruse is Assistant to the President for Institutional Planning and Effectiveness at the American University of Kuwait (AUK). He has spent almost fifteen years working abroad at institutions in the United Kingdom and Middle East, including international student housing, study abroad, exchange programs, and he co-founded and still oversees the Student Affairs Graduate Summer Internship Program at AUK.  Tadd has served as a Senior Student Affairs Officer, founded a department at a start-up institution, and worked in a variety of professional fields within Student Affairs and Services. He currently serves as a Leadership team member for the International Association of Student Affairs and Services (IASAS), and as a member of the Middle East, North Africa, & South Asia (MENASA) NASPA Advisory Board.

Please e-mail inquiries to Tadd Kruse.

Abdulwahab Al-Khaldi serves as the Office of Student Life Coordinator at the American University of Kuwait. He is a Kuwaiti national and has worked for over seven years in multiple higher education institutions in Kuwait.

Please e-mail inquiries to Abdulwahab Al-Khaldi.

Evan Witt is a Campus Life Project Coordinator with the University of Auckland-City Campus. Previously, he spent four years as the Assistant Director for Student Engagement at Hamad bin Khalifa University located in Doha, Qatar. His work focuses on student leadership development, student engagement, graduate student involvement, and service-learning. Evan completed his master’s degree in Higher Education Administration at the University of Maryland-College Park (MD) and his bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Leadership from James Madison University (VA).

Please e-mail inquiries to Evan Witt.

The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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